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Investigator Warned MMS in 2009 About Deepwater Gas Blowouts in Gulf of Mexico

Sixty-page report points to record of almost 40 deepwater blowouts, and culture of dangerous risk exposure

May 24, 2010

A sixty-page memorandum addressed to Renee Orr, the chief of the leasing division of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), was sent in September 2009 by an environmental investigator, warning of potential disaster in offshore drilling operations and the particular dangers posed by gas hydrates.

It was written as a public comment to the federal government's proposed rule for oil and gas leasing between 2010 and 2015 on the outer continental shelf, and offers a wide-ranging compilation and analysis, based on meticulously documented scientific, industry and government sources, of many accidents little known to the general public.

It warns of the potential for catastrophic environmental disaster in an offshore accident, highlighting many of the potential dangers that the Deepwater Horizon explosion has now put on display. It also raises concern about the ongoing and unrecognized release of vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere, a gas 20 times more powerful as a warming agent than CO2.

"The primary cause of blowouts, spills and uncontrolled releases of gases from offshore operations is drilling into methane hydrates, or through them into free gas trapped below," the report warns MMS. It cites much evidence compiled from accident investigations and other documents published by MMS itself, which is the federal agency responsible for assuring safety and environmental protection of offshore drilling operations, as well as leasing rules and royalty payments.

Between 1992 and 2006, almost 2,500 deepwater wells were drilled — more than three times as many as in the previous 20-year period. There were 39 blowouts during that period — 38 of them in the Gulf of Mexico — recorded in MMS accident investigation reports.

Most were in shallow water, short-lived and "environmental impacts were negligible," according to an MMS analysis. Because the fatality rate of these blowouts showed a decrease, the analysis was touted as pointing to an improving safety record. (See "Absence of Blowout Fatalities Encouraging in MMS OCS Study 1992-2006."

Yet the analysis revealed that problems with cementing caused most of the blowouts; and that the chances of a blowout were better than 1 in 400. These facts did not set off any alarm bells, or raise concern about the possibility that a blowout in deepwater could one day be catastrophic.

Reached by telephone, the investigator told SolveClimate that he received an automated email response from MMS to the online submission of his 60-page report, and never heard from the agency again.  

Safety Suffers During Drillng Boom

In 2000, during the heart of the unprecedented deepwater drilling boom, which began in the early 1990s, MMS published a review of gas hydrate research activities, which included this testimony from Dr. Roger Sassen of Texas A&M University — which the investigator's report highlighted — that warns unequivocally about the dangers of a deepwater blowout:

What most concerns me real-time is that the energy industry is moving into deep water of the Gulf of Mexico where gas hydrates form instantaneously in sea-floor experiments...Surprisingly little is known about the geology (water depth distribution, geologic controls, maximum preservation depth in sediments) and geochemistry (compositions and stability realms) of natural gas hydrates in the context of energy industry activities...We simply cannot afford a major accident in the deep waters of the Gulf, and thus have a clear common objective with the MMS.

In giving presentations on natural gas hydrates to the energy industry, I found that knowledge of potential gas hydrate hazards is limited. There is the tendency within the energy industry to decrease time between discovery and production, and to use new and innovative technology, in an effort to decrease costs. At the same time, internal energy company research has been scaled back. These circumstances could potentially increase risk in a relatively unknown environment. Gas hydrate related problems have occurred in deepwater environments elsewhere, but they have
not always been widely publicized.

By the end of 2008, however, even industry insiders were starting to acknowledge that the deepwater drilling boom had grown beyond the safety capacity of the oil and gas companies to manage properly. With profits on the line, rig crews were stretched thin and staffed with less experienced operators, as this article from Drilling Contractor  acknowledged.

Large numbers of new drilling rigs are being commissioned to explore for more resources in order to meet demand. However, the problem arises that each new rig require a core of experienced personnel whose training takes longer than the time it takes to build a drilling rig. The present pool of experienced personnel is being diluted to fill vacancies on new rigs while promotions of inexperienced staff are being accelerated.

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